The solutions

Last week I drew your attention the the causes of Too Many Cars, (and, fortunately, no-one reads this blog, so I’m not wading through a bunch of indignant comments about Freedom and Choice). I showed this diagrammatic summary of the ‘vicious circle’:

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Unsurprisingly, there is a corresponding diagrammatic summary of the solutions, the ‘Virtuous circle’:

You will notice that it’s a very similar diagram but with the arrows going the other way. Which implies to me that there are many possible Things That Can Be Done – and the trick might be to operate on many fronts at once.

(Source: the Levett-Therivel sustainability consultants. This graphic is quite well-known, I think, and I found this copy here.

Exciting trip not exciting after all

A band I used to follow in the 80’s (very local and jazz I’m afraid, so nothing anyone will have heard of) used to use the following introduction to a Denzil Best number:

“Is there anyone here from Milton Keynes? No? Oh that’s a pity because if there was, we were going to dedicate our next number to them.

“It’s called MOVE

That is really unfair.

Anyway, tomorrow I was hoping to hire a Brompton to use in combination with a train journey to Milton Keynes. Thus giving me an excuse to discuss the topics of bikehire, folders and Milton Keynes. Sadly the brompton hire from Temple meads is not yet working (though it is set up and there are bikes there, because I had a look the other day), but I still have to go to MK.

Oh and tomorrow, 22nd September, is something called world carfree day. Very nice idea – though you could be forgiven for never having noticed.

Next post on Thursday.

Freedom

I’d like to draw your attention to this. It’s from Stephen Joseph, director of the Campaign for Better Transport.

“… the motoring manifesto is really State planning masquerading as libertarianism. The argument runs: people want to drive cars, it is part of a fundamental freedom to move around, and any impediment or charge on this, beyond perhaps a ring-fenced contribution to pay for road building and maintenance, constrains that freedom.

The truth is rather different: motoring, unlike other transport and economic activity, is not charged at the point of use. Once the tank has been filled and (sometimes) vehicle tax and insurance paid, people are free to use the roads as they like, at the times they like. Sometimes so many of them want to use the same stretch of road at the same time that congestion occurs. In all other areas of the economy, the price of scarce goods rises to reflect demand. Because there is no price for using roads, people queue.

To deal with this unpriced excess demand, the State then steps in and centrally plans trunk roads using bureaucrat-generated forecasts of future traffic based on past trends. To build these roads, it then compulsorily purchases private property, after a public enquiry in which it is not possible (following a 1980 House of Lords ruling) to challenge the principle of the project and the forecasts underlying it, only the detailed routing and mitigation measures.

“Sound familiar? This process has several of the characteristics of Stalinist central planning which in other areas conservatives have taken steps to abolish. Like Stalinist central planning, it also doesn’t work.[ … ]

The politics are also not as good on speeding traffic as they might look. The public is suspicious of speed cameras being used to raise money, but that is about the public’s distrust of the State, not an opposition to cameras or to speed restraint. Huge majorities of the public – indeed of members of motoring organisations like the AA – support speed cameras, and not just in accident black spots but on residential streets, in villages and around schools. [ … ]

“Much car use is not a choice, it’s enforced by State decisions on road building and land use planning”

(Unfortunately I have lost the full reference but it is from something called the blue book on transport which was directed at conservative party policy makers when they were in opposition. I came across it when I did a short volunteer stint for Transport2000 (now the Campaign for better transport) in 2005, so the date would be somewhere in the early noughties)

Transport psychology

How could I, trading under a title like Psychobikeology for goodness sake, have possibly missed this? A whole issue of the psychologist about transport psychology!.

The Mindhacks blog post quotes Dr Ian Walker. I’ve got some posts about his research stacked up ready for next month. In fact this is a good opportunity to try and assuage some personal embarrassment. Back in 2007, I blagged an interview with him – good writing practice I reckoned and I wanted to publish it in the magazine of my local cycling campaign – and he was nice enough (and he is a nice chap) to talk to me at length. Unfortunately I never managed to write it up – partly lack of journalistic skill and partly because I think I was quite run down at the time – and ever since have been very embarrassed about effectively wasting his time. I’ve still got the transcription and will turn it into one of next month’s posts.

(And if you’re reading this Ian – unlikely I know – please accept my apology).

A picture of the problem

The thing is, transport is a systems problem – lots of interlocking factors, change any one of them and the others will change in turn. Difficult to get a proper handle on and so really, you do need a diagram:

(Source: the Levett-Therivel sustainability consultants. This graphic is quite well-known, I think, and I found this copy here.

Also by Roger Levett: an astute discussion of how government actually behaves.)

More about ‘choice’

I put the word in inverted commas to make ‘choice’ seem a little opaque. Its meaning is usually assumed to be straightforward and it is assumed to be a Good Thing. Yes, choice is pretty good, but it is not at all straightforward.

For some purposes, ‘choice’ can be treated as a ‘black box’ – we’re not interested asking why people choose, we only need to know what they choose, treating that choice as a ‘revealed preference’. In case there are any economists reading this (unlikely), this sounds to me like a useful procedure for some purposes – the social sciences make use of simplification and abstraction just as the natural sciences do. But asking ‘what causes one choice over another?’ is highly relevant for other purposes and there is a lot of research (both observational and experimental) looking at this.

What I’m getting at here is that choice of travel behaviour (“oh well, now we’ve moved to the country we really must get a car”) is not neutral in the way that, say, choosing between the chocolate gateau and the strawberry cheesecake would be. If so many people chose the cheesecake that you couldn’t find decent gateau anymore, it wouldn’t matter that much. It would be sad for the choc-fans, of course, and a slight reduction in cultural liveliness for everyone, but I don’t think there would be the justification for legislation, choc-awareness campaigns or public subsidy for gateau-making equipment. Nobody’s freedom would be impinged on in any important way. But the current transport arrangements (i.e. the primacy of personal driving) do violate freedom in important ways, (which I will talk about in a future post) and they do cause harm, as previously argued .

So we do want to ask why people make the travel choices they do, and to insist otherwise (“modal agnosticism”) is, I think, a misunderstanding of economics and a fantasy about the possibility of a “level playing field”.

Choices are not isolated.

Right then, we make choices in a context. So for example, it might make sense to do your shopping once a week, or fortnight, in an out of town supermarket – it saves time and money which you need for other things. Correct choice. But why is there an out of town supermarket, with a jinormous free car park, and super-cheap food? Because a heroic entrepreneur who loves to take risks set one up? Oh come on. A decision was made to allow a very rich company (which knows exactly how small a risk it is taking) to build it. The company’s behaviour is fine – that’s what companies do and competitive aggression can, if kept in harness, be very beneficial.

But society does not have to say “yes” to every request from aggressive companies, because what is good for Tesco’s business is not necessarily good for society’s business. And yet, the more “yes’s” have already been said, the harder it becomes to say “no”, the harder it becomes to even think “no”. It does become genuinely difficult. It has become genuinely difficult.

That small planning decision to allow the out-of-town supermarket sits within a context of myriad other small planning decisions about the built environment, stretching back throughout much of the previous century, but which were all made with the presumption that more car-ownership was a good thing, would produce good results, would increase wealth and make us happier. There was a presumption that car-use should be fostered (and doesn’t that word sound just a wee bit, erm, nannyish?). Those decisions brought about the current situation, where many people ‘have to’ (and a few really do have to), drive everywhere.

The way out of this situation is via myriad small decisions which admit that there were some unanticipated consequences of our previous decisions and that we now want something different.

How much choice do we really have?

Now then, dear imaginary reader, you might well find a very big flaw in my statement of the problem. If you drive, you might not even bother to read my list of the negative effects of motor traffic because you think you know what’s coming. You think that you are about to be accused of environmental crime and called upon to ditch your car. That is ridiculous, you need it. You are not a bad person. You are innocent, well-intentioned and sincere.

No, I’m not making fun – my list was genuinely not an accusation of anyone – and certainly not a personal accusation of you. I’m quite serious here and am pointing to a real issue which occurs in many other areas.

Many problems are created by behaviour which, if performed only occasionally, and/or by a small number of people, would not be a problem. But when such acts are performed frequently and/or by many people, they become a big problem. So what should you, as an individual, do? Your contribution to the problem, in quantitative terms, is negligible. If you stopped doing whatever it is, the problem would not get any better – but you would have disadvantaged yourself in order to stop doing it.

The dichotomy between the individual and the societal viewpoints can seem to choke off the possibility of doing anything. From the viewpoint of the individual, how can little ol’ you ever do anything big enough? For those who do have some power to make bigger changes, there are limits on how much they actually can force people to change their behaviour – and even tighter limits on what they can do and hope to get re-elected.

It makes no sense for individuals to act against their own interests, and yet what else do ‘society’ and ‘culture’ consist of but an aggregation of individual acts? How can anything ever change? And yet things do…